Good news amidst the bad

A sermon for remembrance on April 16th, 2008
Psalm 23; John 11:17-45

Did you hear the news?

When did you hear?

Our rector, Scott West, opened his sermon on Easter morning with these words.

News travels fast these days, faster than Mary Magdalene or the disciples ever could have imagined on that first resurrection morning.

When did you first hear the news on April 16th?  For many of us those will always be moments frozen in time.

This was not good news, not the kind of news that was escaping fevered lips on that morning so long ago when they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.

This was bad news, unthinkable news.

I will always remember where I was, standing in front of a TV in the customs area of JFK Airport in New York City, having just returned from a week’s vacation in Germany.  I remember all the busyness around me – people retrieving their bags, jockeying for position in the passport control lines.  There I stood in front of this TV, jetlagged, shocked, feeling quite alone, wondering what to do next.

This was not good news.

Bad news came to Jesus about his friend Lazarus.  Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus some days before saying, “Please hurry! Please come heal our brother.”  Jesus did not hurry.  Rather, Jesus came four days after Lazarus had died.

Can you hear the frustration and grief in their voices when both Martha and Mary say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”?  How many times had they asked such questions aloud in the days before – “Where is Jesus?  Why isn’t he here?”

What is Jesus’ response?  He does not scold them.  He doesn’t get defensive.  Instead, to Martha he draws forth hope from her grief, saying, “Your brother will rise again.”  But later when Mary asks him this same question, the writer of John’s Gospel says some of the most amazing words written about Jesus – “when he saw her weeping…he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  And then follow words even more unforgettable – “Jesus began to weep.”

What do you hear when you hear these words, in the older translation, “Jesus wept.”  Do you think it is a clear testimony to how much Jesus loved Lazarus, as some of the by-standers thought?  Do you think Jesus’ tears are remorse for not coming sooner, as some of the others wondered?

What I hear in these words brings me hope.  Jesus grieved.  Jesus was not a stoic, unmoved superman, but rather a vulnerable human being who allowed others to witness his emotions, quite “unmanly” some would say.

Mary and Martha were those sisters whom Jesus had visited some time before and while he was with them, he taught them things about themselves and what it truly means to serve.  Jesus was teaching them again, whether he intended to or not.

Jesus’ heart was broken.  Jesus wept along with those gathered outside Lazarus’ tomb.

If you go into almost any theological library, you will find stacks and stacks of books dedicated to the question – why does God allow suffering?  Why does a good God allow evil to exist?  I’ve read a few of these books, paged through a few others.  Every generation seems to need to write its own set.  But all the finely nuanced theological arguments are basically worthless on a morning like April 16th one year ago.

If someone asks me, “why?” my answer is not much more than these words, Jesus began to weep.

God grieves.  We see it time and again in our sacred stories, this God who is moved by human suffering, this God who hates evil.

It is in this divine grief that I find hope, I find connection.

During the past few weeks I have been leading the members of the Canterbury Fellowship through some of the classic theories of the atonement, asking the question, “Why did Jesus die?”

Whether they liked it or not, I haven’t spooned out easy answers, and I hope I have challenged them to think beyond the normal answers when it comes to such a question.

“Why did Jesus die?”

One of the ideas I encouraged them to explore was that by suffering torture and death, Jesus, God’s son, identified with us in a way that should give us pause.  What does it mean for us to say that Jesus suffered and died?  What does it mean that the very real flesh and blood of Jesus’ body, a body which once was wrapped in swaddling clothes, was as vulnerable as yours or mine?

The tears of Jesus in this passage from John and the blood of Jesus we hear of so powerfully on Good Friday are marks of God’s identification with us.

God grieves with us on mornings like April 16th, September 11th, December 7th, and yes, the morning you got very personal bad news, news that didn’t make the headlines.

Where, then, is the good news?  After all, that is what the word Gospel literally means – good news.

Where is the good news on mornings like April 16th?

Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb.  Unbind him and let him go.

This moment in the life of Jesus and his friends is a foretaste of Easter morning.

Death could not hold him.  Death is swallowed up in victory.  Life is changed, not ended.  Jesus ransomed us from sin and death.  By his death, he destroyed death and made the whole creation new.

These are comfortable words indeed.  Words we should hear with fresh ears every time death touches us or we are confronted with grief.

What is God’s answer to death?  Life.

We are about to have a foretaste of that heavenly banquet, where, in God’s commonwealth, there will be no more crying or pain.

We want that now – we want to get beyond this dark place, this veil of tears.  But this day let us come to the Lord’s Table not just for solace but for strength, strength to endure the days and weeks and months and years ahead of us.  The path of life often takes us into the valley of the shadow of death, but our shepherd has walked this path before us, and knows the way out again.

Pray God we never have experience another morning like April 16th, but even if we do, we must return to this place, to receive from the hands of the one who suffered like us, and in receiving, gain a foretaste of life everlasting.  Amen.

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